The Mostly Forgotten Story Of Atmospheric Railway

It doesn’t matter whether you know it as a railway, a railroad, a chemin de fer, or a 铁路, it’s a fair certainty that the trains near where you live are most likely to be powered either by diesel or electric locomotives. Over the years from the first horse-drawn tramways to the present day there haven’t been many other ways to power a train, and since steam locomotives are largely the preserve of museums in the 21st century, those two remain as the only two games in town.

But step back to the dawn of the railway age, and it was an entirely different matter. Think of those early-19th-century railway engineer-barons as the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos’ of their day, and instead of space and hyperloop startups their playground was rail transport. Just as some wild and crazy ideas are spoken about in the world of tech startups today, so it was with the early railways. One of the best-known of these even made it to some real railways, I’m speaking of course about the atmospheric railway.

These trains were propelled not by a locomotive, but by air pressure pushing against a piston in a partially evacuated tube between the tracks.

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Hardware Heroes: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

There are some notable figures in history that you know of for just one single thing. They may have achieved much in their lifetimes or they may have only been famous for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes, but through the lens of time we only know them for that single achievement. Then on the other hand there are those historic figures for whom there is such a choice of their achievements that have stood the test of time, that it is difficult to characterize them by a single one.

[Isambard Kingdom Brunel], in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. [Public domain]
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. [Public domain]
Such is the case of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the subject of today’s Hardware Heroes piece. Do we remember him for his involvement in the first successful tunnel to pass beneath a river, as a builder of some of the most impressive bridges on the 19th century, the innovator in all aspects of rail engineering, the man behind the first screw-driven ocean-going iron ship, or do we remember him as all of those and more?

It is possible that if you are not British, or in particular you are not from the West of England, this is the first you’ve heard of Brunel. In which case he is best described as a towering figure of many aspects of engineering over the middle years of the 19th century. His influence extended from civil engineering through the then-emerging rail industry, to shipbuilding and more, and his legacy lives on today in that many of his works are still with us.

Engineering: The Family Trade

Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, was an engineer and refugee from the French Revolution who found success in providing the British Navy with a mass-production system for wooden pulley blocks as used in the rigging of sailing ships. He enters this story for his grand project, the world’s first tunnel to be dug under a navigable river, beneath London’s River Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, and for his patented tunneling shield which made it possible to be dug.

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